Overview. A census of governments is taken at five-year intervals as required by law under Title 13, U.S. Code, Section 161. The 2017 Census of Governments (CoG), similar to those taken since 1957, covers three major components – government organization, public employment, and public finances.

The Census of Government is the only source of nationwide, comprehensive state and local government finance information (although local response rates are typically below 100%). The Census of Governments provides statistics on revenue, expenditure, debt, and assets for the 50 states and D.C. In intermittent years, the Census Bureau produces the Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances, which is based on a sample of local governments  (https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/gov-finances.html).

Data availability. State-level aggregates of state and local government financial data are available from the Census Bureau in table format.

A detailed public-use data file provides state-level aggregates, disaggregating local government finance data by type of local government (county, municipality, township, school district, and special-purpose district governments). In addition, an Individual Unit data set provides detailed financial data for 88,830 individual state and local government units.  

Data tables and datasets for the 2017 Census of Governments (Finance)–along with historical data going back to 1942–are available from the Census Bureau:

https://www.census.gov/data/datasets/2017/econ/local/public-use-datasets.html

Public use files (list of governments with reference information) along with the Governments Unit Survey methodology (1997-2017) are also available from the Census Bureau:

https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/gov-finances/data/datasets.html

Data reliability. The Census Bureau notes that the individual unit data are edited by analysts solely with the purpose of creating the most accurate estimate at the state and type of government level, and should not be viewed as an accurate time series for any individual unit. The individual unit data in the should be viewed only as inputs that were used to create the estimates.

It is further noted that the underlying data may contain high levels of non-sampling error. Non-sampling error can be attributed to many sources: errors in coverage of the universe of governments, nonresponse, differences in the interpretation of questions, mistakes in the recording and coding of data, and other errors in collection, processing, and tabulation of the data. Although no direct measures of non-sampling error are available, steps have been taken in all survey processes to minimize their influence.

Individual data units are edited by the Census Bureau in an effort to reduce response errors and processing errors. Data for non-response units are imputed in an effort to mitigate the effects of non-response. A discussion of the methodology and processing used can be found online at https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/gov-finances/technical-documentation.html (under the ‘Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances Methodology’ tab).

The Census Bureau recommends that any results based on these data should include cautionary statements concerning the data limitations and the potential influences of sampling and non-sampling errors, as noted above

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